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    Rice Takes Office as Secretary of State; Plans Europe-Middle East Trip Next Week

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    Condoleezza Rice officially assumed office as U.S. Secretary of State Thursday, promising to press forward with President Bush's drive for democracy worldwide, and to repair relations with U.S. allies. She will make a get-acquainted trip to Europe and the Middle East starting next week.

    Ms. Rice began her tenure as Secretary with a hectic day of activity, delivering a pep talk to the State Department work force, telephoning world leaders, and planning for her first overseas mission: an eight-day tour of Europe and the Middle East starting next week.

    In impromptu arrival remarks to hundreds of diplomats and other employees crowded into the State Department's main lobby, Ms. Rice invoked the theme of President Bush's inaugural address last week.

    She said she could think of no better calling than to say that the United States will stand for freedom and liberty, and with those who want their aspirations for democracy fulfilled.

    A former Soviet affairs expert on the White House staff in the late 1980s, Ms. Rice recalled the pessimism about the future of democracy that followed the Second World War.

    She said America's wartime adversaries and Eastern Europe were democratically transformed, and she said, despite broad skepticism, the same can happen in the Middle East and Muslim world. "I know that there are those who wonder whether democracy can take hold in the rocky soil of the West Bank or in Iraq, or in Afghanistan. I believe that we as Americans, who know how hard the path to democracy is, have to believe that it can," she said.

    Ms. Rice gained Senate confirmation Wednesday in a process marked by bitter Democratic criticism of Bush administration Iraq policy. The 13 votes cast against her in the Senate were the most in modern times.

    She becomes the second African-American to hold the job after her immediate predecessor Colin Powell and the second woman to hold the post, the first having been the Clinton administration's Madeleine Albright.

    The new Secretary said she is committed to making certain that the State Department has the resources to carry out what she said was President Bush's "bold" foreign agenda, and said she would build on gains of recent years in making the U.S. diplomat corps more diverse. "We are one America made up of people from all backgrounds, and all ethnicities and all religions. It's an extraordinary thing that we really have forged one out of many. And we are going to be a diplomatic corps that embodies that diversity, because it's an extremely important lesson in a world where a difference is still a license to kill," she said.

    Ms. Rice, who met with Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom Wednesday, telephoned a number of foreign officials Thursday including Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Italian Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini.

    The State Department said she will visit Britain, Germany, Poland, Turkey, Israel and the West Bank, Italy, France, Belgium and Luxembourg in the fast-paced initial foreign trip she begins next Thursday.

    Aides say the mission will be largely a get-acquainted trip, also aimed at repairing relations with U.S. allies strained by the Iraq war, and to lay groundwork for President Bush's European trip later in February.

    On the brief Middle East segment of the trip, Ms. Rice plans to meet with both Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the new Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to keep up momentum in peace efforts that have shown new life in recent weeks.

     

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